A Whimsical Strauss and an Underwhelming Schubert

GermanyGermany Richard Strauss, Schubert, Berliner Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Berliner Philharmonie, 4.6.2014 (SH)

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major (“The Great”)

Following a suite of cancellations, Loren Maazel announced that he would be unable to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of Strauss and Schubert on 4-7 June. Fortunately, there’s always someone willing to lead this top-tier ensemble, even at the last-minute, and on this occasion the substitute was Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov. A childhood exploit proved his love for the ensemble is nothing less than ardent—as a teenager he spent the night in police custody after attempting to sneak into a sold-out performance by the orchestra in St. Petersburg.

The program featured Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote, a familiar piece that spins Cervante’s tale of the errant knight in colorful variations on a theme. The orchestra is given the opportunity to undertake whimsical transformations painted by the composer, and the brass section bleated fantastically as a herd of sheep while the strings whistled and wavered like windmills. The delirious Don is embodied in the solo cello, played deftly here by French Philharmonic Orchestra Academy graduate Bruno Delepelaire, and he showed musical maturity beyond his years. He matched the tone of each saga with the hero’s theme, fluctuating from rapid emotion during the battle with emperor Alifanfaron (in actuality, a herd of sheep) to tender morbidity as Quixote leaves this world with the final quivering stroke of the bow. Viola soloist Máté Szücs made an excellent impression as the servant Sancho Panza, infusing a tenderness and nuance into his musical dialogue that countered the Don’s often blustery and chivalric notation.

Bychkov has a history of stepping in for big names and has been a go-to for the Berlin Philharmonic since he took over for the indisposed Riccardo Mutti in 1985. This wasn’t his first concert with the Philharmonic and Strauss—in 2008 he led the orchestra through another famous Strauss tone poem, An Alpine Symphony. However, the maestro received a lukewarm reception from the audience at the end of the evening, perhaps the result of an average treatment of Schubert’s “great” Symphony in C Major, which comprised the second half of the evening. It was noted in the program as number 8, as it often is in Germany. Schubert wrote it during the final years of his life and was unable to pay for a performance of his grand work. Instead, he sent the piece to Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde which compensated him with a minimal payment. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann was shown the finished manuscript Schubert’s brother. Ecstatic with his find, Schumann sent the work to Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the latter arranged for the first public performance in March 1839.

Despite the passion that Schubert put into this work, Bychov seemed incapable of drawing a sense of ardor out of even the most romantic passages. The orchestra followed his refined motions with ease; however, the audience was left feeling only a spark from an orchestra that typically builds a bonfire. The symphony seemed to have lost some of its grandeur via the slower tempi that Bychov selected. The Andante first movement began regally with the call of a lone horn that seemed to capture the sense of sehensucht that the composer intended, but the Andante con moto was particularly sluggish, making the 55-minute symphony a bit of a yawner. However, the piece was technically precise, no easy challenge for a work known for its unforgivingly long string and woodwind passages, and both sections performed the piece with apparent ease.

Sarah Hucal

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